Men’s water polo defends MPSF Tournament title

USC punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament by pulling off two big upsets.

Junior 2-meter Luka Brnetic earned a season-high of three goals against UCLA, his career-high for goals scored in one game. (Louis Chen / Daily Trojan)

It was Conquest week all across campus for USC, and while the Trojan football team failed in its mission, the No. 3 USC men’s water polo team certainly did not. The Trojans conquered two of their fiercest rivals in dramatic fashion to secure a second-straight Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament and a 19th-straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

The winner of the MPSF tournament, which took place at Spieker Aquatics Complex in Berkeley, earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Because of its lackluster conference record, USC (15-6, 1-5 MPSF) was unlikely to receive an at-large bid, meaning it had to win the MPSF tournament to keep its season alive.

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“Our team is very dangerous when our backs are pressed against the walls because these guys really want to win,” said Head Coach Marko Pintaric in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “They played with such a big sense of urgency and they were on a mission.”

The seven-seeded Trojans kicked off the tournament Friday morning against the two-seeded and Division III No. 10 Augustana College (15-6, 6-0). USC breezed Augustana by a score of 20-4 and used the opportunity of a weaker opponent to get experience for many younger players.    

Saturday afternoon, a second crosstown showdown took place in the pool, as the Trojans took on No. 1 UCLA (24-2, 7-0) in the tournament semifinal. The teams had faced off three previous times this season, with UCLA winning all three. However, in their last matchup Nov. 18, USC was up late in the fourth quarter, but lost 10-8 in overtime.

This time, USC closed the deal. The Trojans took a 3-1 lead in the first quarter and never looked back. They went into halftime up 8-4 and held on for a 13-9 victory, handing the Bruins their first loss of the season.

“What I’m proud of is that the guys really learned from those losses,” Pintaric said. “You can always go two different ways. You can take it as ‘we lost, we aren’t there, we don’t belong’ or you can take it as a learning curve and a learning lesson and bounce back, try harder and win it all. Our guys showed that they have that winning character and winning mentality. That’s what I love about the team.”

Junior 2-meter Luka Brnetic led the way for USC with three goals, while freshman driver Zach Bettino had a goal and four assists.

The wins over Augustana and UCLA set up a matchup in the final against No. 2 UC Berkeley (21-5, 3-3), who defeated Penn State Behrend (7-26, 2-4) and Stanford (16-8, 2-4) on the way to the final. It was the third contest of the season between USC and Cal, with the Bears winning the first two.

The MPSF championship game was like a heavyweight boxing contest Sunday, with each team trading punches all game. Neither team led by more than one for the entire first half, and USC took a 6-5 lead into the break. Within that first half, chaos reigned supreme, as USC had a goal controversially disallowed, and Pintaric received two yellow cards, which led to his ejection — his second of the season.

Cal began the second half by scoring three straight, but USC responded with four goals in a row to take a 10-8 lead. Cal then answered back, tying the game at 10 and taking a 12-11 lead with 2:20 to go. But senior 2-meter Max Miller and graduate driver Massimo Di Martire would not be denied.

Miller, one of the Trojans’ two captains, scored his seventh goal of the game and team-high 43rd of the season to tie the game at 12 with 2:03 remaining. Miller’s seven goals were not only a career-high for him, but also the highest tally for any Trojan since 2021.

“[Miller] really exploded in that last game,” Pinataric said. “Pretty much an inhuman effort for us to win it. This is leading the team and leading by example. That’s why the team is where they are. The leaders are the ones who are setting up the example and the rest of the guys follow.”

Di Martire, playing in what would’ve likely been his final collegiate game if USC lost, scored his fourth goal of the game with 1:20 left on the clock. That goal would prove to be the winner as the Trojans stifled three final Cal attacks to earn the 13-12 victory, MPSF championship and a place in the NCAA tournament in one fell swoop.

USC will now turn its attention to the NCAA tournament. It is an eight-team, single-elimination bracket and is being hosted at USC this season. The Trojans will enter the tournament as the three seed.

USC will take on San Jose State in the first round Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. at Uytengsu Aquatics Center.

Stefano Fendrich contributed to this report.

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